The image on the Chevrolet TV commercial is bold, even shocking: One by one, new Chevy models are driven onto a moving car carrier to be transported , presumably to a dealership. The final vehicle, finished in a dazzling coat of yellow, is the 2004 Chevrolet SSR convertible roadster/pickup.
It pursues the car carrier at high speed when suddenly its driver slams on the brakes, pulls a U-turn and backs the SSR onto the moving car carrier. While commercials normally don’t merit mention in these columns, this one is a perfect metaphor for the SSR: bold, adventurous, dramatic and utterly perfect in its impracticality.
And, a wild , and most welcome , break from tradition. Too often in years past, General Motors has taken the conservative route with its designs, resulting for the most part in a string of uninteresting vehicles.
The SSR convertible may be a sign that the folks at GM have finally gotten a fire in their collective belly and are ready to build passion-inspiring cars again.
The SSR is a radically new vehicle. A two-seat convertible with a small pickup-truck bed, the SSR is big and heavy like a sport utility vehicle, yet it doesn’t carry much in terms of either people or cargo. That said, it’s more fun than anything GM has introduced in decades and possesses an incredible amount of panache.
Practical? Hardly. Fun? Laissez les bon temps roulez!
Make no mistake: The SSR is 2004’s “It Car” , the vehicle to see and be seen in. Its sheer whimsy draws people to it like moths to the proverbial flame and turns heads everywhere you go. From a design standpoint, it pays stylistic homage to the 1947-’53 Chevrolet Advanced Design line, the automaker’s first fresh post-World War II trucks.
The SSR is every bit as retro as a Chrysler PT Cruiser, Audi TT or new Ford Thunderbird, yet it also incorporates some of the key automotive design details of the moment, such as massive 20-inch wheels in back and 19-inchers up front, which allow it to sit low and squat on the road.
The result is a far more aggressive stance than its forebears would ever have dreamed of. The SSR’s most unusual feature, though, is the power-retractable hardtop, also known as a “top stack.”
Roof panels move independently to stack vertically behind the passenger compartment. A single button on the console transforms the SSR from an enclosed roadster to a convertible in 25 seconds, tucking the roof panels rearward in waterfall fashion. The interior is clean, cool and, of course, retro, with plenty of satin chrome finish to give it a 1950s hotrod look.
There’s ample room for even big folks like myself to get comfortable. And of course the pickup bed will hold more sets of clubs than the cab will people.
Powering this beast is the familiar and utterly reliable GM Vortec 5300 5.3-liter V-8, which is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Earlier versions of this same power train have fired up a ton of GM sport utilities and pickups over the years and have worked extremely well.
And it’s 100 pounds lighter now, thanks to a new cast aluminum alloy block. On the road, the SSR is a blast to drive. Given its size and 4,760-pound weight, it isn’t exactly a sports car in terms of acceleration or handling, but it is extremely comfortable for cruising.
The Goodyear Eagle RS-A (Rally Sport-Asymmetric) all-season performance tires deliver a smooth-yet-solid road grip for a rewarding driving experience. Zero-to-sixty sprints take 7.6 seconds , not lightning fast, but certainly respectable.
Best of all, dropping the top makes for an absolutely magnificent driving experience. With the sun in your eyes, the wind in your hair and the basso profundo rumble from the big V-8’s exhaust, the SSR delivers an obscene amount of smiles per mile.
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SUBARU IMPREZA WRX , Subaru doesn’t just make cars for folks in cold-weather climates anymore. The Impreza WRX produces 227 horsepower and costs less than $25,000, making it a great choice for a budget high-performance car.
It’s also a blast to drive.
FORD FOCUS SVT , Like the Subaru, the Ford Focus SVT is a great choice as a graduation gift: cheap, swift and comfor able. With form-fitting Recaro bucket seats and a 170-horsepower four-cylinder motor, the SVT likes to be pushed hard and the engine definitely is more rewarding higher in the RPM range.
Tom Jensen is the managing editor of National Speed Sport News and is based in Charlotte, N.C.